Fighting Soccer’s Barbarians
My beloved Beitar Jerusalem has some racist fans. Instead of abandoning the team, we should take it back.
Beitar Jerusalem, the iconic Israeli soccer team, gave one of its better performances of the season earlier this week, defeating Maccabi Umm al-Fahm 5-0, but almost none of the thousands in attendance were paying any attention. Most of the fans, along with hundreds of policemen, scores of security guards, plainclothes detectives, and the Israeli media, were watching the stadium’s eastern terrace, the haven of a small group of hardcore fans calling itself La Familia. Unabashedly racist, frequently violent, and unafraid of clashing with the team’s management, La Familia is costing Beitar dearly: The group’s deeply offensive chants have led the Israel Football Association to repeatedly fine Beitar tens of thousands of dollars, and Israeli public officials are calling on anyone from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, to step in and curb the hooligans.
Wary of riots, the team’s general manager, a beloved former Beitar goalkeeper named Itzik Kornfein, appealed to hold the game against Umm al-Fahm—most of whose players are Arab Israelis—in an empty stadium, prohibiting any spectator from entering, and hiring guards to prevent La Familia from sneaking in. It was an extreme step, and public pressure soon forced Kornfein to retract his proposal. Instead, he had the police issue restraining orders for several dozen of La Familia’s rowdiest members.
Kornfein’s measure was only a stopgap. The real battle will occur in the weeks to come, when Beitar is slated to welcome the first Muslim players in its history. Faced with the news, La Familia announced that since the racial purity of the team was at risk, they had no choice but to declare war against their beloved team.
It’s an almost comical thing, for dedicated fans to mobilize against their own team, but no one who has been following La Familia’s growth found any humor in their declaration. The group was founded in 2005. Back then, Beitar, though struggling, enjoyed a solid reputation as the unofficial team of the Likud, with Netanyahu, former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, and other party luminaries attending its games. By affiliation—Beitar was founded by the Revisionist Zionist group of the same name—the team was always associated with the right, but there was not much radical politics on display at its actual games. Occasionally, especially when playing the much-reviled team associated with the socialist left, Hapoel Tel Aviv, things would get heated. Sporadically, more overtly racist statements, like “death to the Arabs,” would be made. But, overall, Beitar’s fans were no better and no worse than those of any other team.
Slowly, that changed. In 2007, during a moment of silence to honor the slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, La Familia’s members stood up and started enthusiastically shouting the name of his assassin, Yigal Amir. Then, in a burst of twisted creativity, the group introduced an impressive canon of chants, each more vile than the next. “Baruch Goldstein is a dear,” went one of the popular ditties, referring to the Israeli settler who opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and killed 29 Palestinian worshipers praying there. “Yigal Amir, thank you very much. Every time an Arab gets killed is a festive day for me.”
Its membership rising—by most accounts, La Familia is currently 5,500 fans strong—the group became a de facto lobby and quickly began intervening in the team’s decision-making process. In 2009, faced with growing criticism of its fans’ racist behavior, Kornfein, the general manager, spearheaded a move to bring Abbas Suan, a star Israeli-Arab midfielder, to Beitar. La Familia objected. An Arab, they declared, should never be allowed to play for Beitar. Exerting pressure on the team’s management and players, they torpedoed the move.
At first, Beitar’s owner, the Russian-born oligarch Arkady Gaydamak, seemed to favor a policy of containment. A 2007 profile of Gaydamak’s right-hand man, Yossi Milstein, revealed that Milstein was in daily contact with La Familia’s leaders and in the habit of occasionally funneling funds to pay for what was described as “cheering accessories.” In return, Gaydamak and his men expected quiet.
But having named itself after the Italian mob, it was only a matter of time before La Familia made a move on its patron. Like the mafia movies that inspired them, their actions were now feats of operatic violence: In January of 2008, for example, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the offices of the soccer association. La Familia denied any knowledge of the attack, but the organization’s name was spray-painted everywhere on a nearby wall. Soon thereafter, the group took to beating—and, in one case, allegedly robbing at knife point—fans of opposing teams. They seized and brutalized a handful of Arab youth employed by Beitar as janitors. And in March of 2012, elated after a victory, more than 300 La Familia members filed into the Malha Mall, adjacent to Beitar’s stadium, started chanting “Muhammad is dead,” and then sought out and beat up any Arab Israeli they could find.
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